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Boris Johnson is a Boarding School Survivor – That Should Concern Us All

Iain Overton draws on his personal experience to explore why the Prime Minister’s background may explain his mendacious approach to politics – and life

Boris Johnson at a hospital protest in 2008. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Archive/PA Images

Boris Johnson is a Boarding School SurvivorThat Should Concern Us All

Iain Overton draws on his personal experience to explore why the Prime Minister’s background may explain his mendacious approach to politics – and life

In an age when much social capital is made about victimhood, there remains one community the British public remains relatively ignorant about: the boarding school survivor. But, when we come to discussing the current scandals of the Prime Minister, it is an issue that cannot be ignored.

It is not surprising that there is a blind-spot of sympathy for those sent away to boarding schools. After all, such childhood separation is weighed-up against the educational benefits, the networks created, and the positions of privilege attained in later life. Schools such as Eton are deemed, in the end, to be a birthplace of privilege and power – not of suffering and trauma.

Of late, though, there has been a shift in the debate. In the past fortnight, two prominent ex-public schoolboys have articulated just how painful being sent away was. The author Louis de Bernières has launched a repository of harm in The Sunday Times, asking ex-boarding school pupils to send in their memories of sexual and physical abuse, mapping the educational landscape of a schooling he called “hell”. The popstar Will Young has also recounted how his prep school was “appalling” and detailed the scars being sent away so young gave him.

Their words resonated with me. I, too, was sent off aged eight – dispatched to a draughty preparatory school in the Kentish countryside. Milner Court was all of the things de Bernières and Young described – and more. Predatory teachers, physical abuse, cold shared-baths, iron-hard beds, inedible food. But it was not the presence of harm that was the real issue. It was more the absence of love. The departure of my parents the week after I was sent away, dispatched to a military posting in Hong Kong, and the immediate and immense distancing from my mother, served as a secondary trauma that was to hurt deeply.

It was like being made an orphan. But with the added twist that your parents had approved it.

The impact of such a schism is normally one with relatively limited reverberations. In most cases, the ex-boarders’ psychological damage can reveal itself in forms of self-harm, leads them to be emotionally distant, or damages their relationships with those closest to them.

But, in the case of Boris Johnson, clear elements of what some call a ‘boarding school syndrome’ have seeped into the public space. This needs to be talked about.

Unspoken Trauma

Johnson was sent away at 11 to Ashdown House, separated from parents posted to Brussels. It must have been traumatic indeed. 

As the journalist Alex Renton, another ex-pupil, records, the headmaster was a sadist who beat as many boys as he could and molested others. The school seems to have been so appalling that Viscount Linley was pulled out mid-term by his mother Princess Margaret. Whilst Johnson’s sister, who was also sent there, recounts how she was “terribly homesick”. Her father hadn’t even visited the school before sending his children there.

I would not dare judge what happened personally to Johnson at his prep school. But the recent scandals that the Prime Minister has found himself in, especially those that comment on his personality, appear be very much the product of a certain type of ex-boarding school pupil.

His one-time closest adviser Dominic Cummings has very publicly let Johnson’s mask slip, calling elements of the Prime Minister’s behaviour as “totally unethical” and falling “far below the standards of competence and integrity”. Another allowed into his inner world, former lover Jennifer Arcuri, has called Johnson “cowardly”. She described the time when forcing him to leave her hotel room after they had had sex made him “very distraught”. She summed up his needy behaviour as “bizarre”.

The separation anxiety that boarding school often engenders might be revealed in that little incident but, in both cases, it has taken people who did not go to such institutions to see the damaged man beneath. It seems as if they, like so many people, were seduced by Johnson the articulate, witty, charismatic leader. But they were then let down by Johnson the betraying, lying, incompetent failure.

Trying to understand this distance between Johnson’s words and deeds is helped by reading the American author William Faulkner, who described how “words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other”.

Today, Johnson struggles to straddle his words and deeds. We have scandal after scandal, where there is a disconnect between the Prime Minister’s public statements and private actions. Where he is reported to have said “let the bodies pile high” rather than have another lockdown, though he has denied saying this. Where he told aides that he would rather let the Coronavirus “rip” than face a second lockdown, which has also been denied. And where there are serious questions regarding the cost of redecorating his Downing Street flat, which he has also rejected.

These are not normal patterns of behaviour. The psychotherapist Joy Schaverien has listed a set of symptoms she sees in many ex-boarders: how the abandonment by parents, the bereavement that leads to, and the captivity imposed by the often Victorian institution of the school “can cause profound developmental damage” to both children and the adults they become. In a way, it seems that we are seeing a country waking up to this damage.

Perhaps we should sensitively contemplate the fact that Boris Johnson is a wounded man, traumatised by his own upbringing. As the author James Baldwin once wrote: “There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.”

But such an awareness should not just elicit our sympathy. It should also raise the question, in the end, as to whether Boris Johnson – the boarding school survivor – is really fit to be our Prime Minister.

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